Thursday, April 13, 2023

(D&D 3e) Sword and Fist

 As a collector and an amateur critic, my thoughts often return to the subjects of sophistication and the cultivation of taste. Get deep enough into any hobby, fandom, or interest and your opinions start to become . . . alienating. You stand in front of Rothko and are moved to tears by its power and beauty, but when it comes time to explain it to your dad, words fail you. Or you find yourself delighted when a new game is "Souls-hard," and have a hard time believing people might want a difficulty slider. Or you claim with a straight face that James Joyce's Ulysses is your favorite novel.

Or, to choose a more pertinent example, you're an rpg blogger who has read 400 books over the past 5 years and your first question when encountering a new one is "does this adequately justify its existence?" What kind of question is that to ask? How is that in any way a sensible way to relate to a new piece of art?

Nonetheless, I keep doing it. If you've ever wondered about the seemingly whimsical criteria by which I judge these books, that's a big part of it - I like it when a book justifies its existence to my satisfaction, never mind that the more books I read, the harder it is for that to happen.

It's very difficult to describe this phenomenon without sounding like a snob ("I guess I just like art that's not accessible to novices"), but I don't think it's actually snobbishness (I say, fully aware that I'm exonerating myself from such a charge). I think it's a matter of practice. You engage with a form of art often enough and long enough, then certain aspects of that engagement become . . . easier. You encounter a new work and that inevitably raises questions, and the work captures your attention for exactly as long as it takes to answer those questions. So when you ask and answer a particular question often enough, it can no longer hold your attention for long. Sophistication, then, is a preference for works that force you to ask the questions that arise once you know all the obvious answers.

I'm torn between the perspective that sophistication is value neutral, because it is largely a function of time and exposure and the perspective that sophistication is a tribute to the power of art. Shunning sophistication as mere snobbery seems to me like you're denying the ability of art to expand your perspective. If sophistication is not a meaningful distinction, then the obvious is the only thing that can exist. But, of course, there's a trap for the critic too - how might you bring yourself to reconnect with the obvious, because the entry points, the simple questions and easy answers, are inevitably what drew you to the art in the first place (and if I had a definition of "snobbishness" it would probably be "the belief that you can skip the obvious without losing anything of value")?

Which is a long-winded way of saying that Sword and Fist, by Jason Carl, is basic as hell, but I don't want to hold that against it. This is actually a book from my "old collection" (defined here as the books I bought primarily to use, before I started identifying as a collector). I've had it since practically its date of publication, and I have no memory of being jaded about it the first time around. Insomuch as I have any memory of this book at all, I seem to recall being impressed by the versatility of the 3rd edition rules, and I loved that for the first time in my D&D career, I could play characters like the Drunken Master and actually feel like the rules supported me.

But that's just a (possibly confabulated) memory of an opinion. My opinion this time is a) the Drunken Master prestige class is pretty cool; and b) wow, they didn't anticipate any of 3rd edition's flaws, like, at all. They're out here talking about giving up your iterative attacks in order to take a movement action like it's a tactical decision and not a serious design flaw. And yeah, sure, I'll consider the possibility of "wizard, sorcerer, cleric, and druid Ravagers," because "their ability to cause terror in their foes is a very useful defensive measure" and there's nothing that you could possibly get with your eight skipped caster levels that will match using an Aura of Terror as a supernatural ability three times per day (also, the only thing the Aura does is impose a slight penalty to savings throws, which is maybe useful for a spellcaster, but not worth giving up spellcasting for, and definitely not worth relying on as a defense, but also, Ravagers get no class abilities that call for a savings throw until level 10, so that's kind of a weird design).

But look, it's easy to be snarky, and in all honesty, what I'm complaining about is really the caster classes and not anything in this book. I actually really like the magic level of this book. Join the elite warrior order of the god of slaughter and learn to use supernatural fear as a weapon. Give up your name to become a Ghostwalker and so long as your enemies don't know who you are, you can feign your death and walk through walls. Get the capstone ability for the Ninja of the Crescent Moon class and you become this sneaky little guy, constantly taking 10 on stealth checks, regardless of the circumstances (which is just hilarious to imagine). Nothing in this book is worth giving up 10 caster levels for, but I could see how 5 Fighter feats might be a good trade-off. And I would definitely play in a world where this was all magic was - neat little tricks that supplement skill, rather than replace it.

But that's not the 3rd edition we got, so there was a certain sense of doom reading Sword and Fist. This is a book that's dedicated to the Fighter and the Monk, two of the game's lowest tier classes, and nothing from this book is even going to slow that assessment down. 

On the other hand, that's a pretty unreasonable thing to expect from a book so early in the edition's life cycle. If you give Sword and Fist a mulligan on D&D3's mechanical problems, then it serves an admirable niche - it demonstrates various ways you can adapt the new system. It shows you how to build a knight or a swashbuckling duelist, and though it will eventually prove unwise to blur the lines between a prestige class and a character build (and, in fact, this book advises players to build towards the prestige classes they'll eventually want to take - one of the big complaints about the edition as a whole), it does feel good to see these different Fighter concepts have distinct mechanical expressions.

I'm pretty sure I found it terribly impressive, back in the day, even if I now think it's basic as hell.

Ukss Contribution: Mercurial swords. They're hollow swords with a reservoir of mercury inside them. I guess the operating principle is that the mercury sloshes around as you swing the sword and adds momentum to your hits. It's absolutely off-the-wall nonsense, but it perfectly illustrates the distinction I was making between "basic" and "sophisticated."

"Basic" asks an obvious question: what if there were a sword that was better than a normal sword? And it gives you an obvious answer: a magic sword.

"Sophisticated" takes that one step further: how can you represent the magical action of a magic sword, to make it visibly better than a normal sword? And it gives you a less obvious answer: by taking an off-the-wall nonsense idea and saying that the people of this fantasy world have figured out a way to make it work.


  1. Pretty sure the mercurial swords are a reference to Terminus Est, from Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun.

  2. That's interesting. I suspect that Mr. Carl's reasoning might have been similar to mine, then - that a fantasy world could justify strange and implausible weapons. It's always nice when an author sneaks something weird into D&D's "standard fantasy."